Maybe We’re Not All CEO Material

The overglorification of three letters of the alphabet.

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Photo by Jakub Dziubak on Unsplash

Call me triggered, but I’ve worked in places like Outdoor Voices. I’ve experienced nonsensical and inexperienced behavior, poor decision-making, ego-driven environments, everything OV (supposedly) was under its former leadership. While toxic work cultures that are detrimental to mental health are unacceptable, and in my heart I feel for those who had to get up every day and earn a living inside an unhealthy space, I think there’s something going on with the prestige and personal brand culture around CEOs that maybe we can curtail. Maybe not every person who has a great idea needs to be the CEO of it. Maybe there are roles that should matter just as much as Founder. Maybe titles feeling important isn’t as important as the rest of a team feeling good about going to work.

I’ve worked in places where brilliant creative minds very clearly wanted to be the “everything” of a company. It’s face, it’s driving force, the one who gets all the attention and all the credit and has approval powers over everything. I’ve worked for people who want to be a brand’s only person who matters. The trouble with that is that if your idea or brand are ever going to matter all, they’re going to need a lot of people. And you are going to need to give up your need to matter so much. Unless you don’t want to be successful, in which case feel free to keep bullying your employees and spending $36K annually on Topo Chico.

Why are CEO and Founder titles so prized? Why is there an implied glory to them, when it’s essentially common knowledge that any company that’s been founded is comprised of more than one person. Not that the person who had the idea and got the funding and worked out of their laundry room for a year doesn’t deserve praise, but I think it’s pretty clear at this point that not every great idea comes along with a person who should be running a company. I don’t think every person who has a brilliant idea has to be able to run a company. I see no less prestige or accomplishment in someone who knew they needed to get help for that, and wasn’t too ego-driven to bring in someone with a title more “senior” than their own. I see more accomplishment there, not less.

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Photo via Etsy.

Why do we assume the person who originates a brilliant idea is also imbued with leadership skills? Why do we think they have to have them, either? Not every brilliant idea comes from someone who has proficiency in structuring a productive, revenue-generating, healthy environment people are happy to work in. I can’t fathom how I’d do that, and I have great ideas all the time. Different skill sets are allowed to exist in different people. Not everyone has to be everything. Essentially the most important skill set a person with a great idea can have if they are not also currently able to run an entire company is the ability to recognize that, and hire those who can take their brilliant idea and do something with it that isn’t going to make employees afraid to come to the office.

In 2018 I left a new role after eight weeks because I was working for a CEO who had never run a startup company before (not their fault), was so excited to be a founder and driving force of the brand (not their fault), and also refused to trust work from a single member of their creative team in any capacity (also, in a way, not their fault). They weren’t a CEO, they were a brilliant creative who had a fantastic idea and still do. They could do every creative task at expert level, they just didn’t have time to, because they wanted to be CEO instead. Unfortunately that didn’t stop them from trying to control every bit of company minutiae anyway. The result was a toxic cycle of micromanagement, mistrust, and my swift exit. I am very lucky that I was experienced enough in my career to know that if someone wouldn’t let me send an email (literally any email) without cc’ing the CEO, I had no business working at that company. I feel for those newer in the workforce who still have to stay or feel like they have to stay. I’m thinking if we start giving less of a shit about CEOs and start valuing, I don’t know, the rest of the team just as much, things might get better.

The sour side of me thinks, essentially, it’s just for Instagram. The prestige, the cool factor, the chance to be in the spotlight, on the panels, honored guests at blogger dinners, the star of the brand. It’s about getting credit, attention, and power. Otherwise why wouldn’t someone with a brilliant idea be completely okay with leading product design, creative, or any other role more directly aligned with the function of the idea or product in the first place? Why do they also feel the need to take on the very highest level leadership role, regardless of whether or not the have any experience or knowledge about how that’s done? “I’m CEO, bitch.” Okay, but …should you be?

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Photo via Etsy

Why does it have to be Founder & CEO if not for the prestige, cool factor, and celebration? We all know the Instagram vs Reality memes. It’s one thing when it’s a stunning photo of your vacation that ignores the weird rash you got on the beach earlier that day but quite another when an Instagram persona is hiding a whole company full of people depending on a toxic environment for their livelihood. People are getting really good at building personal brands on Instagram. If that’s what someone wants, they should pursue that, as opposed to trying to get it by acquiring an entire payroll of people who eventually vent to reporters because they’ve been treated so poorly.

I think brands like Outdoor Voices (sorry to pick on just them but I felt this Buzzfeed piece recently written on the company), would be a lot better off if they were run from the beginning by people who knew what the hell they were doing. I also think all of us as consumers and professionals looking for people to look up to would be a lot better off if we started giving the ultimate prestige, attention, and celebration to people other than just the one person at the top.

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Photo via Etsy.

Why do we place so much emphasis on one person? Why do we pay so much attention to the “face” of a brand, and ignore the 100 people below them who are also working their asses off? Where’s the panel full of project managers who are keeping shit together for a team of 20? Those are the people I want to hear from, not the founder with great style and a brilliant creative mind who made everyone else sign NDAs so they can’t ever tell the truth about what they had to put up with. A whole team went into a product. I want to hear from the whole team.

One of the charming phrases I used to hear when I worked at startups was “titles don’t matter.” It was usually the CEO saying that. Titles are just something that provides structure and levels and pay ranges and helps teams organize themselves so that a startup office doesn’t resemble a heard of cats any more than it needs to. I get why titles exist, I just don’t understand why Founder/CEO is the hot social media merit badge.

There are other titles, and other people doing a lot of work that they deserve to do within environments that don’t make them feel like garbage or drive them to hide Xanax in their desks like I used to. Maybe we need to lift up the work of teams, rather than the social status of CEOs.

Maybe you have a brilliant idea, and maybe that idea needs to become a product.

Maybe it’s okay if the first thing people think of when they think of your product or brand is not your name.

Maybe being CEO doesn’t give you license to be horrible to the people you need to work for you.

Maybe being CEO doesn’t make you more important than anyone else.

Maybe every member of your team should feel valuable.

Maybe no matter how strong your idea or brand is, without a team, a culture, and a revenue model to back it up, it inevitably won’t be worth very much for very long.

But I don’t know, you tell me. You’re in charge.

Written by

NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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